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Dan B. Starkey.

"George Rogers Clark and his Illinois
Campaign. (1897)

li!iec!S fiiiisr&i Scrvjy


No. 12
MILWAUKEE, Wis., January 12, 1897




Printed for the Parkman Club by Edward Keogh


There is no name associated with the early history of the
West more worthy of grateful remembrance by the people of
the United States than that of George Rogers Clark, "the
Washington of the West," as Reynolds called him, "the
Hannibal of the West" [i], as he is styled. by John Randolph.
By an almost bloodless contest, he gave force and validity to
shadowy charter claims, and rendered an inestimable service
in securing to this country the domain of an empire, out of
which five great states have been carved. Conceiving and
carrying to a successful conclusion against the most formidable
obstacles, "one of the most daring and brilliant military enter-
prises recorded in the annals of individual or national hardi-
hood" [2], he helped to make the Mississippi River the western
boundary of the nation at the close of the Revolution, and
paved the way for securing the vast territory to the West, the
accession of which extended the nation's boundaries from sea
to sea. It was perhaps no very great stretch of the historian's
imagination to say that but for the work of this remarkable
man, the magnificent country which now forms the greater
part of the United States, "might at this hour be broken from
us at the Alleghany Mountains' summit, or the Ohio River's
shore." [3]

When American independence had been won by force of
arms, the chief obstacle to the securing of peace by the arts

[1] See chapter headed "The Hannibal of the West" in Dunn's

[2] Rives' "Life and Times of Madison," vol. i., p. 192.
[3] "Clark's Campaign," introduction.


of diplomacy was the western boundary. The fisheries ques-
tion was also a stumbling block, but that was of secondary
importance, and was more easily adjusted. Many months of
wearing negotiations were spent in an endeavor to arrive at
a satisfactory settlement of the boundary question, and the
fact that the United States held the disputed territory by right
of conquest and settlement, as well as by charter claims, was
the principal ground upon which the American commissioners
relied to sustain their claim to the Mississippi River and the
Great Lakes as the western boundaries of the new nation. It
has been said that "while due credit should be given to Clark
for his daring and successful undertaking, we must not forget
that England's jealousy of Spain, and the shrewd diplomacy on
the part of America's peace commissioners, were factors even
more potent in winning the Northwest for the United States"
[4], but. the fact remains that but for Clark's campaign "the
force of conquest, the moving etiquette of treaties of peace,
would have been lost." [5] By the treaty of 1763 England
had come into actual possession of the country between the
Alleghanies and the Mississippi River, to which she had previ-
ously claimed an imaginary title [6], and Spain had obtained
the vast territory west of the Mississippi, but twenty years
later, when the United States wanted peace, the British title
to the country was disputed and the King of Spain saw fit to
lay claim to it on very slender grounds, perhaps with the con-
nivance of both France and England. [7] France had
undertaken to aid the United States to obtain its independence,
and had made a treaty in which it had been expressly stipulated
that peace should not be made with England until the inde-

[4] K. G. Thwaites, in Wither's "Border Warfare, p. 254, note.
[5] "Clark's Campaign," introduction.

[6] The early charters of the colonies had extended their boundaries
from ocean to ocean, but England's domain did not extend beyond the
Alleghany Mountains.

[7] In 1781 a detachment of Spaniards and Indians took possession of
Fort St. Joseph, near the source of the Illinois. The Spanish minister
caned it a conquest and insisted that if the country did not belong to the
King of Spain, it belonged to the Indians. See "Clark's Campaign."


pendence of the United States in its entirety should be
acknowledged, but when it came to making the treaty of peace,
she showed no disposition to help the young nation to any
territory that it had not wrested from Great Britain for itself,
and it became a question of the utmost importance as to what
had been British territory, and what was in the hands of
the United States -at the close of the war. M. Vergennes,
the able French minister, said that "France did not desire to
see the new Republic mistress of the entire continent" [8], and
the secret diplomatic correspondence of the period of the pease
negotiations shows that he was in sympathy with the desire of
Spain and England to curtail the domain of the infant Repub-
lic, notwithstanding his professions of friendship. [9]

The King of Spain, who had acted for a while the part of
mediator, and was reluctant to make war upon England,
insisted that the United States should renounce its claims to
the lands east of the Mississippi, as a condition precedent to
his entering the alliance with France, and France, anxious for
reasons of her own to give the Bourbon kingdom the balance of
power in. America, used her influence to get the American
commissioners to yield the point. Interests too great were at
stake, however, and they declined at the risk of a breach with
France. The Catholic king's claim that England had for-
feited her title [10] to the disputed territory, that it did not
belong to the Americans, but to him or to the Indians, was not
tenable, and it was the only ground upon which the demand
of the United States could be refused. There was no doubt
that the territory had belonged to England and had been won
from her in the name of Virginia. The State of Virginia had
asserted her claim to the territory by virtue of her chartered

[8] See "Diplomatic Correspondence," vol. i.

[9] See "Diplomatic Correspondence," Winsor's "Narrative and Crit-
ical History," "Adams' Writings," "Franklin's Works," "Magazine of
Western History," etc., etc.

[10] "Narrative and Critical History," vol. vii., p. 118.


limits, and by "the right of conquest'' [n], and her Assembly
had, on November 5th, 1779, adopted resolutions instructing
her delegates in Congress "in the pending negotiations with
Spain to use their utmost endeavors to obtain an express stipu-
lation in favor of the United States for the free navigation of
the River Mississippi to the sea," etc. At the previous session
the Legislature had passed an act incorporating into her gov-
ernment the whole country between the Ohio and the Missis-
sippi, under the name of the County of Illinois, and provision
had been made for its protection by reinforcements to Clark's
army. Virginia had later granted 150,000 acres to Clark and
his officers, and had reserved lands for other soldiers and
officers, while Congress in 1780, recognizing the title of the
different states to their western lands, had recommended that
they cede them to the United States. These transactions had
taken place before the signing of the preliminary articles of
peace and all the facts were known to the peace commissioners
of the- interested nations. Congress, too, when by its act of
March, 1779, it instructed its commissioner to insist upon the
Mississippi River for the western boundary, had held that the
American people had succeeded to the English rights. [12]
The design of Spain, abetted by France, had been "to coop
us up within the Alleghany Mountains," as Dr. Franklin
expressed it in 1782, and it has been said that the chief reason
why the design failed was that "George Rogers Clark had
conquered the country, and Virginia was in undisputed pos-
session of it at the close of hostilities." Judge Burnet says in
his interesting "Notes on the Early Settlement of the North-
West Territory:" "That fact [the capture of the British forts]
was confirmed and admitted, and was the chief ground upon
which the British commissioners reluctantly abandoned their
claims." In the light of more recent historical knowledge, it

fll] Rives' "Madison," vol. i., p. 206.

[12] "Narrative and Critical History," vol. vii., p. 90.


must be admitted that those statements need some modifica-
tion. As has been said, the whole credit for the winning of
this large portion of the West can not be given to Clark, and
yet the fact remains beyond dispute that his achievements
played a part, without which the diplomacy of our embassa-
dors abroad might have been unavailing. It detracts some-
what from Clark's glory that he did not, himself, take into
account the important bearing his undertaking would have
upon the boundary question ; and it can hardly be said that he
was actuated by any such high patriotic motive as the exten-
sion of the domain of his mother country. Clark probably
had another end in view, but Thomas Jefferson saw the
importance of the successful outcome of the expedition, as is
shown by a letter which he wrote to Clark before the expedi-
tion started, in which he said: "Much solicitude will be felt
for the result of your expedition to the Wabash; it will, at least,
delay their expedition to the frontier, and if successful, have
an important bearing ultimately in establishing our North-
western boundary." [13]


The limits of this paper will not permit an extended
account of the disturbed condition of things prevailing in the
Western country shortly before the breaking out of the revolu-
tion, nor an inquiry into the causes which made the eastern
half of the Mississippi Valley the theater of a long and bloody
border war. It will suffice to say that the encroachment of
the American settlers upon their hunting grounds had gained
for the colonists the hatred of the Indians who fought them
first on their own account, and then broke a short-lived peace

[13] Dr. Hinsdale in his work on "The Old Northwest" takes the view
that Clark's conquest, separate and apart from the colonial titles, would
not have secured the great West to the United States, but in another place
he remarks that the American commissioners at Paris in 1782 could plead
nti possidetis in reference to much of the country beyond the Ohio
because the flag of the Republic raised over it by George Rogers Clark had
never been lowered.


to fight them at British instigation, until George Rogers Clark
whipped them into subjugation. Much has been written about
the Illinois campaign and its results, but the life of the man
who conceived and executed it remains in comparative
obscurity. Of his early years almost nothing is known. He
was born near Monticello, in Albermarle County, Virginia, of
British ancestry, on November I9th, 1752, and at the age of
sixteen had begun life as a surveyor. Four years later he was
practicing his profession on the upper Ohio, and had taken up
a claim at the mouth of Fish Creek. He seems to have con-
tinued to work on the upper Ohio for a couple of years, and
in April, 1774, was one of a party of eighty or ninety Virginians
who gathered at the Little Kanawha River with the intention
of making a settlement in Kentucky, the tide of emigration
being that way at the time. Rumors of Indian outbreaks
diverted them from their purpose, and made them participants
in the events which led up to the Dunmore war. Clark was
a member of a company which started out to attack the camp
of Logan, the famous chief, but relented when it had gone five
miles on its journey, and it was his testimony which years
afterwards cleared Capt. Cresap from the charge of having
murdered Logan's family. When activities began in earnest
against the Indians, Clark joined Dunmore's army and was
made captain of a company, though he was then only twenty-
one years of age. The part which he took in this war gave him
a knowledge of Indian fighting, which, joined with his experi-
ence as a frontiersman, fitted him for the greater enterprise in
which he was to be the moving spirit. His services in the war
had evidently been valuable, for at its close he was offered a
commission in the English service, but evidently foreseeing
the clash that was to come, and being heartily in sympathy
with the colonists as against the mother country, he declined
the commission.

Then, as now, the West was regarded as the field of action
for young men, and Clark had for some time thought of cast-


ing his lot in the country beyond the Alleghany Mountains.
It does not appear that he went west with any political ambi-
tion, but on the contrary that he sought only a fortune. His
letters of that period are full of talk about the land that was to
be obtained in the far country, and there is no ground for sup-
posing that he left Virginia with any other intent than that
of securing an estate for himself, and making money by the
speculation which is always incident to a new and developing
country. In the spring of 1775 he carried out the intent,
frustrated by the Indian outbreak the year before, of visiting
the Kentucky country, which had been explored by Daniel
Boone and others a few years previous. He remained until
the fall of the year, engaging in surveying, and soon became
very popular with the pioneers, who recognized in the young
adventurer the qualities of a leader. He thought of making
Kentucky his permanent home, and busied himself during his
stay investigating the condition of the settlement. He found
that great dissatisfaction prevailed., and saw that something
had got to be done to bring about a better feeling or the settle-
ment would languish and perhaps die. Early in the year
Colonel Richard Henderson & Company had purchased from
the Cherokee Indians a large tract in the territory that now
comprises Kentucky. [14] There had been a considerable tide
of emigration, and the proprietors had soon begun to raise
the price of their lands, which had caused complaints. Some
of the leaders were trying to persuade the people to pay no
attention to the company [15], and trouble was brewing.
Clark, no doubt, saw that the disturbed condition of things
afforded an opportunity for a bold and venturesome spirit like
himself to become a leader, an opportunity which he would be
the last to miss. In the fall he returned to Virginia, and while
there matured his plans for bettering the conditions of Ken-

[14] Butler's "Kentucky."

[15] "Clark's Memoirs" in Dillon's "Indiana."


tucky. "While in Virginia," he says in his "Memoirs," "I
found there were various opinions respecting Henderson &
Company's claim. Many thought it was good ; others doubted
whether or not Virginia could, with propriety, have any pre-
tensions to the country. This was what I wanted to know.
I immediately fixed on my plan, viz: That of assembling the
people getting them to elect deputies, and sending them to
treat with the Assembly of Virginia respecting the condition
of the country. If valuable conditions were procured, we
could declare ourselves citizens of the state; otherwise, we
might establish an independent government; and, by giving
away a great part of the lands, and disposing of the remainder,
we would not only gain great numbers of inhabitants, but in
a good measure protect them."

Earlv in the summer of 1776, Clark returned to Kentucky
to carry out his plan. He induced the people to convene at
Harrodstown and the meeting was held on June 6th. He did
not outline his plan in advance, simply stating that "something
would be proposed to the people that very much concerned
their interest.'' [16] "The reason I had for not publishing what
I wished to be done," he says in his "Memoirs," "was that the
people should not get into parties on the subject; and as every
one would wish to know what was to be done, there would be
a more general meeting." Unfortunately for the detail of his
plans, he was late, and before he arrived the meeting had
elected him and Gabriel Jones as delegates to the Virginia
Assembly, with petition praying for the establishment of a
new county, instead of electing them as "deputies under the
authority of the people," as he had wished [17], and he could
not prevail upon them to change the principle. Clark and
Jones immediately set out on their long journey through the
trackless wilderness to Williamsburg, where the Virginia

[16] "Clark's Memoirs."
[17] "Clark's Memoirs."


Assembly was sitting. They hoped to get there before the
session ended, but, after enduring the greatest hardships and
suffering, they arrived in Virginia too late. There was noth-
ing to do but to wait until the fall session for a hearing, and
Clark determined to attempt in the interim to get some powder
for the Kentuckians, who needed it to defend themselves
against the Indians. Jones went to Holston to join the forces
about to set out against the Cherokees, who had begun hos-
tilities, and Clark proceeded to Williamsburg alone. Patrick
Henry, who was then governor of Virginia, was lying sick at
his seat in Hanover, and Clark visited him there. Henry was
favorably impressed with Clark, and gave him a letter to the
Council recommending the granting of his request for five
hundred pounds of powder. The Council, however, took a
very different view of the matter, and at first could not be pur-
suaded to do more than to let him have the powder as a loan
for which he was to be personally responsible in the event that
the Assembly declined to receive the Kentuckians as citizens.
Clark, who probably secretly favored the plan of an inde-
pendent state, declined the offer, writing to the Council that "if
a country was not worth protecting, it was not worth claim-
ing." [18] "I resolved," he said, "to return the order I had
received [issued to the keeper of the magazine] and repair at
once to Kentucky, knowing that the people would readily fall
into my first plan as what had passed had almost reduced it
to a certainty of success." The letter brought the Council to
time; Clark was recalled, an order, dated August 23rd, 1776,
was issued for conveying the powder to Pittsburg, there to
await Clark's orders; and a beginning was made in a series
of events which was to give Virginia, and ultimately the United
States, the magnificent country west of the Alleghanies. At
the fall session Clark and Jones appeared before the Assembly,
and, in spite of the opposition of Colonel Richard Henderson

[18] "Clark's Memoirs."


and Colonel Arthur Campbell, secured the passage of an act
creating the County of Kentucky. It was dated December
7th, 1776, and it gave a political existence to what is now the
State of Kentucky.

It does not appear that up to this time Clark had had any
idea of reducing the British posts. His sole object had appar-
ently been to give the country of Kentucky a political exist-
ence, and it is a reasonable conclusion that what he wanted
was an independent state in which he might be the leading
spirit, notwithstanding that in one place in his "Memoirs" he
speaks of "being a little prejudiced in favor of his mother
country" [19], which made him willing to meet the Virginia
Council half way in the matter of getting a supply of powder.
His real intent, it seems to me, is apparent from his declaration
that "if valuable conditions were procured we [the people of
Kentucky] could declare ourselves citizens of the state; other-
wise ire could establish an independent government" [20] ; from
his chagrin at the action of the Harrodsburg meeting in peti-
tioning the Virginia Assembly to accept them as citizens,
instead of electing deputies to treat with the Virginia govern-
ment in the name of a people already organized; and by his
willingness to break off the negotiations with the Virginia
Council for powder, and to return to Kentucky, "knowing
that the people would readily fall into his first plan." [21] It
is perhaps safe to say that until some years after the date of
Clark's first visit to Kentucky the opinion was general that
the country beyond the mountains would have a separate gov-
ernment, and Clark only sought to bring about what was gen-
erally expected.

Word had been sent to Kentucky that powder was to be
obtained at Pittsburg, but the letter never arrived, and Clark
and Jones, hearing that the ammunition was still undelivered,

[19] Dillon's "Indiana."
[20] Dillon's "Indiana."
[21] "Memoirs."


determined to return to Kentucky by way of the Ohio River
and take it with them. Pittsburg was surrounded at the time
with hostile Indians, which made a guard necessary for the safe
transportation of the powder. They embarked with seven boat-
men, and though hotly pursued by Indians, managed to reach
the mouth of Limestone Creek, where they secreted the pow-
der, and Clark returned to Harrodsburg. Jones joined a party,
commanded by Colonel Todd, and lost his life in an attempt
to return for the powder [22], but Clark afterwards secured
a convoy, and conveyed it safely to Harrodsburg, where
it was badly needed for protection against the Indians
who were making a great deal of trouble. The condition of
the country was infinitely worse in 1777 than it was when Clark
had left the summer before, and it was while he was actively
engaged in defending Harrodsburg from the assaults of the
Indians that he conceived the plan of reducing the British
forts, and subduing the Indians by removing the cause which
incited them to hostilities. Kentucky was experiencing the
horrors of Indian warfare, and scarcely a day passed without
bloodshed. Clark found time, while fighting the Indians, to
keep a journal, the laconic entries of which furnish a vivid
picture of the hand-to-hand combat that was being waged.
Day after day, from March to September, he chronicled the
bloody deeds of their fierce assailants, who gave them no rest,
night or day. In the midst of this direful chronology is this
brief passage, showing the light-hearted character of the brave
frontiersman: "July 9- Lieutenant Linn married; great

At this time the British held three forts which had been
ceded to them by France at the close of the French and Indian
war in 1765 Detroit, on the Great Lakes; Kaskaskia, on the
right bank of the Kaskaskia River, seven miles above its junc-
tion with the Mississippi; and St. Vincent's, now Vincennes,

[22] Perkins' "Western Annals," p. 161.


on the Wabash, one hundred and fifty miles above its mouth.
From these forts the Indians were sent out, armed and
equipped, to prey upon the settlements along the western
border, incited to murder by a reward for scalps. No reward
was offered for prisoners, and consequently no mercy was
shown to the poor settler who fell into their hands. Without
the aid of tl]e British, the Indians could not have held out long
against the valiant men who had undertaken the defense of the
settlements. The downfall of the forts, therefore, meant a
speedy end to the Indian troubles, if nothing more. Each of
these forts which were strong stockades with block houses at
the corners was surrounded by a town inhabited mostly by
French habitants, an easy-going, light-hearted, picturesque
people, who hunted or trapped or farmed for a living, and filled
their idle hours with mirth and music, caring little about who
governed them so long as they were not interfered with. They
gave a careless obedience to the English, but they had no very
great love for them, and naturally would have sympathized
with the Americans but for the misrepresentations of the
British, who poured into their ears frightful tales of the cruelty
and ferocity of the Long Knives, as the colonists were called.
In spite of those stories, many of them had a friendly feeling
for the settlers, as was later clearly shown by their readiness to
aid in the overthrow of their British masters when the forts
were attacked. Their friendship contributed not a little to the
success of the Illinois campaign.


Clark understood the whole situation perfectly, and, with
the grasp of a great military genius, saw that the quickest and
surest way to obtain peace was to carry the war into the
enemy's country. Without consulting anybody, or taking

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